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Health & Parenting

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Today's Teens Gain Weight Faster Than in 70s

Weight Gain Increasing Heart Risks but Diet, Exercise Work Quickly
WebMD Health News

March 5, 2004 (San Francisco) -- America's teens are growing up -- and out -- much faster than their parents, a phenomenon that increases their risk for heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

But researchers report that the dangerous effects of this super sizing of teens can be quickly reversed by diet and exercise.

Patricia Davis, MD, associate professor of neurology at the University of Iowa in Iowa City tells WebMD that she and her colleagues developed a good profile of today's teens by comparing their vital statistics to that of the teen's parents.

"Teens today are gaining weight twice as fast as their parents," Davis says.

Girls Gaining Faster Than Boys

The University of Iowa researchers studied 518 teens from 1971 to 1981. In 2001 to 2003, the researchers revisited those volunteers, who were now adults with teenage children of their own, and measured 228 of those children. "We found that body mass index (BMI), which is a measure of obesity, had increased significantly in boys and girls," Davis says.

In the earlier study the average BMI for boys was about 23 and for girls it was about 22, she says. In today's teens both boys and girls had an average BMI of about 24. So, not only are today's teens bigger, "but in the past men tended to be heavier. Now there is no difference," she says.

Julia Steinberger, MD, MS, associate professor pediatric cardiology, University of Minnesota in Minneapolis tells WebMD that Davis' findings should sound a warning to parents and physicians. Steinberger, who wasn't involved in the study, says, "This is an important message. If we're worried about children being overweight 20 years ago and we realized that was a bad thing, what we are seeing now is even more worrisome."

Increasing BMI Leads to Heart Risks

Davis, who presented her study results at the 44th annual American Heart Association conference on cardiovascular disease, epidemiology and prevention, says that along with the increases in BMI comes an increased link to other heart disease risk factors such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

So what changed between the 1970s and today? Davis says it is difficult to say for sure but several factors probably contribute to the problem, most notably poor diets -- especially increased reliance on fast foods -- and a sedentary lifestyle, with teens spending more time in cyber activities than in physical activities.

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